Simulated Flows

The Interactive Gravity-Defying Liquid Fountain By New York-Based Digital Artist

Imagine a lava lamp that can be controlled remotely by a mere swipe of the human hand. Now replace those industry-standard inky globules with water, cascading like silken waves down a staircase of transparent cubical blocks. The ability to control the slippery movement of water inside a rigid contained space is central to the fascinating new work of French digital artist Vincent Houzé. Interactive Fountain Mapping proposes an experiment grasping at the heart of various overlaps in the arts, sciences and technology, provoking us to question our assumptions about the natural world.

“I have been fascinated by fluid flows in nature for a while, such as smoke and water flows,” Vincent tells us. “How simple underlying motion gives rise to never repeating intricate details, and how to recreate them digitally using fluid dynamics simulations.”

Beginning work as a VFX artist on movies in Paris and London, Vincent’s background in graphic design and computer science prepared him for the challenges in ever complex modes of artistic production. Before moving to New York, where he now resides, he was busy experimenting with code and audioreactive or interactive graphics. He was soon given the opportunity to work on large scale architectural and interactive installations with AV&C. “They also supported me with Interactive Fountain Mapping,” he explains.


While a doubtless effect of the simulation is one of unprecedented calm, there are more questions to ask about the intellectual side to the work, and how the interactive fountain can channel new directions for interactive digital sculpture.

We were excited to find out more from the artist himself:

The Plus: The video shows an attempt to control the simulated flow of liquid inside a geometric sculpture. What got you interested in this concept?
Vincent Houzé:
The starting point was to give back a sense of wonder to phenomena occurring in nature such as water flowing. What if gravity was upside down? Or horizontal? A water flow can now be simulated accurately enough in real time to be quite believable, and using a sculpture as a support makes it much more tangible.

TP: Is there a ‘bigger’ idea behind the experiment and concept?
The bigger idea is about augmented reality – how physical and digital can interact: the water flow is aware of the shape of the sculpture and collides against it. I’ve actually been experimenting with this concept for some time, and did a crude execution of small rocks colliding with a rotating cardboard box a couple years ago:


TP: Can you take us through the creative process and anything interesting you encountered along the way?
There were multiple subjects to be explored in parallel. A few iterations were made on the shape of the sculpture, to fulfil technical constraints in an aesthetic way: multiple flat surfaces are easier to project onto than curved ones, but the stark contrast between the geometric shapes and the organic flows ended up working really well. The liquid simulation framework had been a work in progress for a few months, using a mix of freely available code libraries and bespoke programming, but had to be refined for this specific shape!
After multiple versions two different graphic rendition of the flow were kept, one that mimics water, the other more abstract, that highlights the shape and physical properties of the flow, such as speed. Then it was a matter of tweaking the feel of the interaction for what was both possible and interesting.

TP: Let’s talk about the interactive side. It seems to work a bit like a Theremin. Can you say something about this and how it works?
The installation is using a leap motion, a device which can track the hand position using infra red light and that relays it to the digital simulation. I kept the interaction very simple on purpose, so people would ‘get it’ without explanation. The position of the hand around a point in space above the sensor dictates the strength and direction of the gravity acting on the water flow, as well as its source – additionally one can stop the flow by rotating once wrist.


TP: You premiered at the SEGD Xlab in New York – how was it received?
There was genuine enthusiasm, the interaction is very gratifying and makes one feel like having super power, though in a constrained area! The apparent simplicity and organic nature of the flow appeals to both general and more specialized public.

TP: Do you plan to showcase it elsewhere in the world?
There is no precise plan at the moment, but it’s definitely a goal, I also plan on refining and expanding the concept.

TP: What else is coming up for you this year?
I am currently working on a new interactive installation that will be showcased in a few months in New York, also physics based, but I can’t tell you more at the moment.